"It is solved by walking."
To save our watersheds, we don't need more expertise. We don't need more dollars, more data, more all-day conferences.
We need a walk.
I learned this from 12-year-old, Daniel, on the Wal-Mart parking plaza one evening. The blacktop was still radiating acrid heat into the summer twilight like a griddle, as we poked around.
The only things punctuating the endless asphalt desert were dozens of saplings. These were trees I'd asked town officials to require of the developer two years earlier, when they rezoned the former dairy farm to accommodate his plans. "It matters downstream," I said.
My neighbor Daniel and I, who'd often rambled the farm, knew it contained the headwaters of Town Branch, which bisected my yard. Daniel had practically grown up in that creek with the crawdads.
But ever since the farm had been paved, the creek had been flooding more, leaving trash along the banks-and few crawdads. So we wandered the half-mile upstream to the parking lot that evening to check things out.
"The trees are choking!" he exclaimed.
They'd been girdled with stiff plastic chains when the developer stuck them in the asphalt, two years earlier; nobody had checked on them since. The developer lived elsewhere, his relationship to the land merely one of economics.
Likewise, the people parked here were just visitors-shopping or earning their paycheck. Nobody was in charge.
So Daniel and I ran home to get my pocketknife and his grandmother's shears, and returned to cut free the girdled tree trunks.
"What if we get caught?" Daniel wondered as cars zoomed by.
"We never get caught," I said.
Daniel and I are often out meddling-tracking erosion, resurrecting downed silt fences, freeing snakes from creek-bank traps, trespassing in back of the old cement plant to find out why the runoff is blue. No one catches us. On foot, we go unseen as the land itself.
This gives us a kind of power. In a culture where people live in buildings and cars, the watershed belongs to nobody. It's nobody's pollution, nobody's flowers, nobody's wildlife, trash or trouble-except yours, if you walk it.
So Daniel and I feel responsible for the place-parched dogs on chains, motor oil dumped behind a mechanics shop, even the vast, sky-darkening fires our town periodically burns downstream by its old landfill, where Daniel and I found smoldering shingles, busted planks, insulation and plastic bags of grass-clippings heaped on the pyre. We strode to the town offices.
"Can't y'all smell that?" Daniel exclaimed. "It's plastic!"
Nobody at a desk knew the maintenance crew was burning anything but old Christmas trees. Inside, it's hard to smell things.
Like gasoline additives. Daniel and I often smell gas burping out of the creek halfway through town where it cuts through a park. I called a water specialist I'd met on a riverbank trail.
He came to town, walked the creek and whiffed. "It's MTBE," he announced, and explained how this gas additive could poison entire rivers.
My calls to the state's department of environment revealed that they had records of the contaminant there, but closed the case for lack of recent evidence.
"We smell it," I objected.
I took photos of oily rainbow ribbons coming out of a creekside drain where Daniel posed with a baleful, poster-child face, and we sent them to the agency. A staffer came to town, walked the drainage and reopened the case. On foot, you can inhale information that computer files can't give.
And you can hear. Daniel likes the bird song from the wooded ridge over his house, where two town water tanks sit. One day, though, it was chain saws. I ran up the path to find water department employees cutting the ridge trees. "We need those!" I hollered.
A staffer stopped his chain saw to explain: The department boss could find no other task for them that day. I borrowed his phone and called the oblivious town management, who immediately stopped the busywork and ordered the water department to plant new trees.
We live in an age of disconnect-department from department, government from citizens, people from land. In theory, we'd like healthy waters. We may even know their condition depends on that of the ground beneath our feet.
But if the ground isn't under our feet, because we're always driving elsewhere, or staked to desks by daunting stacks of information, reviving a watershed looks as impossible as walking on water.
So Daniel, who hates sitting indoors, would recommend doing just that. Walking on the ground, he and I have found that we do walk on water, each step bringing us closer to trouble, but also its solution.